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The woolly mammoth skeleton dug up in a backyard

An Iowa man and his sons find what turns out to be a mammoth's femur on their property. Now researchers are excavating the rest of the giant mammal's remains

Backyards are usually reserved for pets and barbecues, but this summer, one Iowa family's outdoor space will be turned into an excavation site. A man identified only as John recently received confirmation that a giant bone he discovered on his property is, in fact, the femur of a woolly mammoth, and paleontologists are already onsite trying to dig up the rest of the remains. (Watch a news report below.) Here, a brief guide to the discovery:

How did they spot the bone? John and his two sons were out hunting for blackberries in the forest area behind their property one day in 2010 when one of the boys pointed to what he thought was a ball at the edge of a creek. Upon closer inspection, John realized that the strange object was actually something much bigger. "I got down on my hands and knees on the bank, and I could see a marrow line around the edge," John told his local ABC news station. "I said, 'Boys, that's a bone. That's a really big bone.'"

What happened next? John dug up the rest of what turned out to be a 4-foot-long specimen. Recently, he packed up his discovery and brought it to the University of Iowa, where researchers identified it as a femur belonging to an ancient woolly mammoth dating back to the Ice Age. Now, experts from the university's Museum of Natural History are in his backyard hunting for the rest of the 12,000-year-old creature's remains. After two digs, they've unearthed feet bones and a few ribs.

How unusual is it to find mammoth fossils? In Iowa, where the hulking beasts used to roam, it's not that uncommon to find stray fossils here and there. What makes this case unique is the possibility of finding an entire skeleton. "It's pretty exciting — partially because the mammoth is being discovered where it died," says Sarah Horgen, the Museum of Natural History's education coordinator. "We know that because we're finding very large bones right alongside very small bones."

What will happen once it's all dug up? For now the bones are in John's living room until he decides what he wants to do with them. (He jokes that he might "build another room off the side of the home and put [the skeleton] together.") The bones technically belong to John, but he and U of I researchers have an agreement in place to study the fossils once they're all recovered. Volunteers predict they'll find the mammoth's head before the summer's over. 

Sources: ABC NewsNew York Daily NewsRed Orbit

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